Moratorium on aquarium fishing passes first committee

  • Makenzie Adler looks at the fish in Quinn’s aquarium on Thursday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — A bill that would have abolished aquarium fishing in Hawaii cleared its first committee Wednesday, but not before its purpose was significantly amended.

Sen. Kaiali‘i Kahele (D-Hilo) introduced Senate Bill 931, passing it through the Senate Committee on Water and Land, which he chairs.


However, he altered the measure’s original language banning all methods of aquarium fishing in favor of placing a moratorium on the practice along with the use of fine mesh nets or traps. The moratorium would be repealed on June 30, 2021, and a decision on the fate of the industry would be made then.

In the interim, an environmental impact study (EIS) would be conducted by the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii, which was another of Kahele’s amendments.

“There has never been an environmental impact statement done for the West Hawaii fishery,” he said. “It needs to be objective. It needs to be with no inherent conflict of interest. It should not have any bias in it, and I think the only way to do that is take it out of (the Department of Land and Natural Resources) wheelhouse.”

The measure’s original language contends aquarium fishing isn’t in step with traditional Native Hawaiian values and cultural practices such as living in harmony with nature and collecting natural resources in amounts commensurate with the necessities of subsistence.

Kahele said he believes that to be true but added no laws should be passed solely on such a basis.

“I’m not willing to ban aquarium fishing on that premise because that’s a very slippery slope when you do that. And where does it end?” he said. “I think it’s a very dangerous precedent to set unless it is substantiated by a comprehensive cultural impact assessment.”

A cultural impact assessment (CIA) is also part of the amended version of SB931, which moves next to the Senate Committee on Judiciary.

While Kahele’s edits leave some light at the end of the tunnel for between 100 and 200 fishermen who held active aquarium permits in 2018, the practice is already under a court-ordered suspension throughout Hawaii.

The State Supreme Court suspended aquarium fishing in September 2017. The decision served as resolution to a five-year legal battle after plaintiffs sued the DLNR for failing to comply with the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act by not adequately documenting environmental impacts of aquarium fishing before issuing permits.

Subsequent rulings by Hawaii’s First Circuit Court, sitting as the Environmental Court, upheld the Supreme Court’s decision and took further steps to halt the practice until the DLNR came into compliance.

As a result, no legal aquarium fishing has taken place in West Hawaii waters for more than a year. DLNR statistics indicate take of aquarium fish around Oahu continues and has increased significantly in East Hawaii during that time.

The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, which represents the multi-million dollar aquarium fishing industry in Hawaii, commissioned two environmental assessments for Hawaii Island and Oahu, respectively, in an attempt to have permits re-validated. Those EAs noted findings of no significant impact.

But Suzanne Case, chairwoman of the Board of Land and Natural Resources, deemed an EIS necessary in July after reviewing the EAs. The EIS, however, would also be commissioned by the aquarium fishing industry, which is where Kahele’s concerns of bias enter the equation.

“I have zero confidence in the aquarium trade’s environmental assessment, which I think was woefully inadequate,” said Kahele, adding he believes its EIS would present the same cause for concern.

As part of his amended measure, the state would put up $500,000 for the purposes of an EIS and accompanying CIA conducted by the University of Hawaii in concert with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Aha Moku Advisory Council and the Hunting, Farming and Fishing Association.

Kahele’s amendments also mandate the DLNR create a Marine Aquarium Fishing Advisory Group “to monitor activities addressed by this act” as well as to assist in the development of the aforementioned EIS and CIA.

The amended bill calls for a report by the UH Research Corporation by the start of the 2020 legislative session and the acceptance of the EIS by the governor 20 days before the 2021 legislative session opens.

If Kahele’s proposed EIS ruled aquarium fishing sustainable, it would likely change the permitting process as well as what permits would actually allow.

Formerly, recreational permits allowed for the capture of nearly 2,000 fish annually using fine mesh nets or traps. Considering the number of active permits in 2018, upward of 250,000 fish could potentially be caught and sold every year. Aquarium fishing permits were not capped.

Opponents of the industry note the DLNR has also never imposed a cap on the number of permits issued. Those who applied for permits did so online at low cost and were not questioned during the process on the types of fish they sought, how many they planned to catch or where they planned to catch them.

“Maybe (the EIS) comes back and says the fishery can be sustainable but we need to further restrict bag limits, we need to change the whitelist species of fish, we need to change the method of collection,” said Kahele, who also broached the possibility of significantly raising permit fees.

Both the findings of Hawaii courts over the last two years and the legislation proposed by Kahele this session center around producing more scientific evidence to back up industry claims that aquarium fishing is not harming reef health or depleting fish populations.

Yet up until court rulings, the executive branch of state government stood staunchly behind scientific evidence gathered indicating the practice was sustainable.

Senate Bill 1240, introduced by Sen. Karl Rhoads (D-Oahu) in 2017, would have halted the issuance of new aquarium permits, limited the ability to transfer valid permits and essentially phased the industry out of existence over time.

The Legislature passed the bill, but Gov. David Ige vetoed the measure — in part on the advice of Bruce Anderson, who was then serving as the DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) administrator.

In the 1990s, the state passed laws establishing marine protected areas covering 35 percent of West Hawaii waters. Those laws were introduced by Rep. David Tarnas, a former legislator who rejoined the House this year as the representative for Hawaii Island’s 7th District.

Ige, Anderson, Tarnas and Bill Walsh, DAR aquatic biologist in Kona, have all said the some 7,000 surveys conducted by the state over nearly two decades following the establishment of marine protected areas in West Hawaii indicate aquarium fishing has proven sustainable.

“(People) suggesting there haven’t been studies done on this issue, I think those statements show a lack of understanding or an unwillingness to accept what has been done,” Anderson told West Hawaii Today in June 2017.


Industry representatives themselves have said they take only about 20 percent of relevant tropical fish species. But opponents of aquarium fishing — divers and members of conservation groups, among others — often cite anecdotal evidence as well as DLNR statistics indicating aquarium fish populations are on the decline.

Popular opinion has proven heavily skewed to one side of the issue. The Humane Society of the United States and For the Fishes conducted a survey in 2017, which found that 83 percent of residents polled said they were in favor of a permanent ban on aquarium fishing in Hawaii.

  1. ypupule February 15, 2019 10:05 am

    Does anyone know how “fine mesh” is defined in the bill? Finer than the old standard, cheap red nets with the wooden “skinny broomstick”-like handle that we grew up with?

  2. Dave Thompson February 15, 2019 11:38 am

    83% of residents said they were in favor of a permanent ban. I think that is all that needs to be said to decide the issue!

    1. Fighting4fishingrights February 15, 2019 12:15 pm

      That was a phone call survey put on by the humane society which called 500 people.

      1. Dave Thompson February 15, 2019 12:16 pm

        Would sampling 5000 have a different result? just asking…

        1. Fighting4fishingrights February 15, 2019 12:51 pm

          As the supporters of fishing and hunting bans like to state that the 8000 fish counts and surveys already conducted are not reliable, I would assumed me making a statement about the 1 survey would be questioned as well. When they are your only source of information, they can spin it all they want. While drinking the koolaid, review the post above that I wrote and educate yourself

  3. Fighting4fishingrights February 15, 2019 12:22 pm

    Hawaii need to wake up. The same groups proposing this ban closed down the last small mammal slaughter house so hunters and farmers can not get their meat processed. The same group proposing this ban shut down scuba spear fishing, they shut down Kaupulehu for 10 years, and oppose anyone taking any resource. These giant groups like Earthjustice, Peta, Humane Society and Center for Biological Diversity are on a power grab and want to control all State Resources and make them off limits. This is bigger than a small fishery it is opening Pandoras Box.
    If the most studied, regulated fishery in the State which has been deemed sustainable for 40 years can not survive, then life as we know it will change. United we stand, divided we fall. Fisherman, Hunters and Farmers are all under attack from the common enemy the environmentalist, they want preservation on all resources. We need conservation, where a resource can be managed, sustained and utilized.

    1. 4whatitsworth February 16, 2019 9:03 am

      You are right we do need to wake up. All of these people who ruined California are now migrating to Hawaii and have decided to bring their cultural practices that create jobs for environmentalists, social service workers, and prevent honest work are now here. These practices have been so effective in California that San Francisco now has more IV drug addicts than High school Students. That is exactly what is starting to happen here!

      Look at all off the effort that has gone into this simply because a few from the from the mainland saw a pretty yellow fish when they were snorkeling. It sounds like there is good judge in case who is saying “show me the real science” so I am hopeful that this will work itself out.

      The real fishing travesty here Hawaii is that the long line industry employees foreign fisherman for $50/Month to pillage hundreds of millions of pounds of our fish and ship it out of the country at $2 lb where it is then resold for massive profit on the other end. Of course since the Californians don’t see this and it does not fit their narrative they don’t care.

      Keep up the good fight.

      1. MarkS_Dem from CA 13 February 17, 2019 7:02 am

        As a California Divemaster, certified in Kona in 1986, who has dived (and led dives) in Oahu, Molokai, Maui, Lanai and the Big Island virtually hundreds of times since then, I can offer my own anecdotal evidence of the steep decline in diversity and numbers of reef fishes. I know the causes of this are many, but what’s the logic of letting the mainland aquarium trade harvest unlimited numbers of Hawaiian reef fish without effective oversight, limits, or enforcement??? Because that’s what DLNR’s stewardship has meant over the last 30 years. The Kahele bill promises a return to the status quo before the Supreme Court banned this activity, and will once again allow DLNR to do as it wishes: Allow the plunder to continue all the while claiming it is sustainable…

        1. 4whatitsworth February 17, 2019 8:48 am

          Thanks for your perspective and if it is indeed the case that reef fish are declining because of the aquarium industry then the science will bear that out.

          Congratulations on having the money to do all those amazing dive trips but some people need jobs, not everyone can work for the government and live in a house where taxes not go up to support crazy regulations (AKA California). -That is my perspective.

  4. antifaHI February 15, 2019 11:24 pm

    Include the HTA in the organizations which have a say. Their opinion means much, much more than asking the few actual fisher men.

  5. For the Fishes February 16, 2019 4:56 pm

    Selling Hawaii’s marine life to the pet trade outside Hawaii has nothing to do with fishing. Anyone taking the time to read the testimony submitted in favor of banning the aquarium trade would have seen statement after statement supporting pono fishing and Hawaii’s fishing families. It’s
    no wonder the trade approves of the amendments in the bill. Upon close inspection
    of the language: 1) Sen. Kahele proposed a fake moratorium that would essentially cancel out the Hawaii Supreme Court decision and allow limitless take with fine meshed nets. How? By redefining “fine mesh” so that it allows use of the currently prohibited nets. 2) Sen. Kahele proposed a fake EIS to be completed in months, though DLNR has for years said that assessing even 20 fish species taken by the aquarium trade would take over a decade. 3) Sen. Kahele proposed a fake working group made up of 100% pro-trade interests.

    A scientific poll conducted by a well-respected Hawaii market research company confirmed that 84% of Hawaii voters want the aquarium trade banned. The Hawaii Democratic Party adopted a resolution supporting a total ban on the trade.

    Sen. Kahele answered loud and clear: he’s with the mainland pet trade. Catering to these destructive interests, against his own community, state, and party concerns, exposed a lack of political will and moral courage to do what is in the best interest of Hawaii and it’s fragile natural resources

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